Sam Cooke

It’s a compromise

Nature vs culture
 
The question of nature vs culture comes up a lot in my job. Not because I’m prone to Francis Galton* mis-quotes, I’m on about the other sort of nature – trees and lakes and mountains and those sorts of things.
 
* – For those who didn’t graduate from Long Road’s Psychology class of 97; Sir Francis was a Victorian polymath who did experiments with twins and coined the phrase ‘nature vs nurture’. To make the joke super-relevant, he went to Trinity College, which is one of the big old buildings in the centre of town. You’ve probably been past it. Did you know that the bookshelves in the library were carved by a talented chap called Grinling Gibbons? This funny name adds to my theory that the whole of Cambridge University is based loosely on the Harry Potter series of books. I’m planning to cover this theory in detail in a future column. Stay tuned.
 
I digress.
 
What I regularly find myself trying to understand from people in order to work out where they might like to live, is the balance they’re looking for between being around nature and being around culture. Cambridge is pretty good for culture. Not just because we have plenty of museums and that new grasshopper clock, but also because we have a diversity of people, a load of funny little pubs, parks to play football in, a liveliness and bustle that’s easy to see. I like going into town and meeting people from all over the world, then them taking me to some little place that I didn’t know existed despite having lived here for my whole life. But we’re less well off on the nature front. Friends of ours moved from here to the German Alps a few years back because they realised they were right at the nature end of the spectrum and that the chalky hill we have near Orwell didn’t really satisfy their desire for the big outdoors. Their village is amazing – mountains, lakes, meadows, utter peace and quiet. You’re not allowed to mow your lawn at lunch time or on a Sunday lest you disturb the silence. It’s bloody lovely. Sitting here typing this I’m fondly remembering the holidays we’ve had there – running for 4 hours up the wooded logging trails to the top of a mountain and only seeing one other human one sunny spring day was a particular highlight. The fact that the other human was selling beer out of a tiny hut called an Alm added to the wonder of the day, but what made it super special was that, because I had no money with me, he let me have a beer if I promised to come back and pay for it another day. I hope he’s not still there waiting. Sucker. But what do they do for culture? They have a few nice local bars and restaurants, maybe 6, but after that they have to drive an hour to Munich or Salzburg. It doesn’t bother them in the slightest, but it would plenty of people.
 
Cambridge isn’t the worst for getting to the countryside, compared to living in central London it’s a breeze. The byways and bridleways that surround the city may not be as dramatic as the Alps, but they are only a few minutes’ away from the edge of town and because they’re a bit boring they don’t attract the zillions of people you get walking up Snowden or in Ambleside, so it’s easier to find a bit of space. But then central London smashes us to bits when it comes to choices of vegan restaurants.
 
I listened to an interview with Brian Eno once and he said that you needed to have two houses to find the balance – one in West London and one by the sea – then alternate a few months at each until you get bored / claustrophobic. Which is a great solution if, like him, you’re Brian Eno, but less realistic if you have a 9-5 job and your bank balance isn’t showing the benefit of decades of great artistic achievement. For the rest of us who like a bit of nature and a bit of culture the usual answer is to live somewhere compromised – quite near a city and quite near some country. Like nature more than culture? Maybe move 15 miles out of town. Like culture more than nature? Consider the suburbs.
 
But compromises suck. You sell them to yourself as the best of both worlds, but in truth they’re mostly the worst of both worlds. When you live in the suburbs you can’t just walk 5 minutes into town, so you don’t go in as much as you would if you actually lived in the centre. And 15 miles out isn’t the countryside, it’s commuter belt.
 
As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about this a bit. I thought I’d had my Newton’s Apple (Trinity again) moment when I decided to move down Mill Road and buy a motorhome to schlep off to the country in, but it turns out it’s quite tough round there to find a parking space for a 7 metre camper. But I now think I have it: I’d like to introduce you to my latest crowd-funded internet start-up. House Sharing. The basic idea is that you hook up with another family / couple / person like you and you share two houses – one right in the middle of a town and one on top of a hill somewhere. It’s cost effective, because you’re only paying half the running costs, it will probably solve the housing crisis because people like Brian Eno won’t have one house that sits empty the whole time and you get to make new friends. There are a few minor pitfalls, so the plan needs some fine tuning, but with your help I think it’s a goer. Please send PayPal donations to the usual email.

Sam Cooke

It’s spring

Aaah, spring. Season of the garden.

Here’s a conversation I’ve had more than once with someone moving out from London:

‘I’m after something with at least an acre.’

‘OK, great, do you have a horse or something?’

‘Nope. I just want a big garden.’

‘An acre is pretty big, are you sure you want that much?’

‘Yep. I want an acre.’

‘OK, here’s one with an acre.’

‘Woah, that’s a bit big, maybe I could actually make do with half an acre.’

In their minds people are really into having a big garden, but often they don’t know why and when presented with what they think they want it turns out they don’t want it at all. A third of an acre takes a serious amount of upkeep, never mind an acre.

There are, of course, plenty of specific needs people have that require land – animals, vehicles, vegetables, athletic children – but for many people what they actually want from a big garden is just privacy. Distance from neighbours. To be able to be in their house without folk being able to peer in and see what they’re up to. Many agents (mainly ones who like made up words) will often champion the ‘unoverlooked garden’, but it’s not actually being seen in the garden that most people are bothered about. I suppose some people might do things outside that they’d rather the neighbours didn’t see, but usually it’s the pants-and-bra dash from the bathroom to the bedroom they’d rather keep private. So what they want from their 130ft garden is 260ft between them and their neighbours behind, not a massive lawn to mow.

It’s not always like this in other countries. In sunny Iberian nations there are plenty of houses that don’t have private gardens at the back, folk sit out the front and chat to their neighbours as they walk by. Alpine chalets don’t surround themselves by 6ft fencing, the most they have is a usually a 2ft wall or a post-and-rail fence just to mark their boundary. We’re famously bashful as a nation and perhaps the way we lay our gardens out is a symptom of that.

When you think about it, it’s arguably grumpy, unfriendly and unnecessary.

Isn’t it nicer to see people? To know your neighbours? To be part of your community, not shut away by yourself?

I guess we all need different levels of social interaction to maintain our mental wellbeing. I very regularly want to be by myself, but equally I quickly feel lonely if I don’t see other people. In this country we used to meet in pubs, but we’re drinking less than we were and pubs are declining. Coffee shops are the modern alternative, but there are only so many flat whites you can drink (oat milk with mine, please) before you get the shakes and/or run out of money. We love to meet people who share our hobbies at golf clubs or knitting circles or Warhammer conventions but in the streets we live on we’ve make it really difficult for ourselves to easily interact with our neighbours.

But things are changing. Visit some of the new developments in Trumpington and their continental influences are immediately obvious. They do mostly have their own gardens, we’re not quite ready to lose that completely, but the areas also have central squares and public spaces. Some of them are also very carefully designed to try to help us shift away from our over-reliance on cars. It’s not so lovely sitting out the front if there’s a constant stream of noisy traffic speeding by, but with limited parking, lower speed limits and streets designed to favour pedestrians and push bikes over cars, these developments really do feel different. They don’t suit everyone. If you need a massive van for work or are a four car household they’re wholly impractical, but if your lifestyle enables you to get about on foot or on a bike or on public transport they’re potentially really appealing.

We still get plenty of resistance from traditional buyers to this type of design, but I’m a believer. A believer that more interaction between people can only be a good thing, that loneliness is a bad thing and that people being able to see into your house or garden isn’t actually the end of the world. But then I have been running a fair bit recently, so I look pretty good in my pants and bra.

Sam Cooke

It’s not that we’ve got anything to hide

Shopping is usually pretty straightforward. You decide you need a thing, find a place that sells that thing, decide if it looks affordable to you and if it does you buy it.

It’s fairly stress free as processes go, some people even enjoy it.

If you get the thing home and realise it doesn’t actually enrich your life in the way you thought it would the law even allows you to just take it back.

There are some specific industries that choose make it a little bit less straightforward though.

I’ve not bought tons of kitchens in my life, but I find it a hateful process. The last time I did I got prices from three shops that varied from £8,000 to £32,000 for broadly the same thing. When I rang the £32,000 people up to try to make sense of the difference, it was my great fortune to discover that they were, for a very limited time and only for very special customers, offering 60% off. Bringing the price down to £12,800. How very lucky I was to have called them that day. I explained to them that this was great news but that it was still 50% more than the cost of the lowest price I’d had. They muttered something about soft-close hinges and promptly reduced the price to £9,000. I hung up the phone unimpressed. The £9000 seemed OK and soft-close hinges are fancy, but I had no confidence that I was getting a fair deal, it felt like they set their prices purely by how ruthless a negotiator the customer was. I couldn’t help but imagine a certain type of buyer, my mum for example, only getting one quote, being pleased with a 10% discount and paying £20,000 more than they could have. I ended up buying my kitchen from Ikea. Not because I liked their kitchens, but because their pricing was honest and transparent. Everything has a specific price and everyone pays the same. It’s fair. When I told the kitchen salespeople from the other shops this was my decision they warned me that my new Ikea kitchen was so cheaply made it would probably explode within the first year. I decided to take the risk.

New kitchens aren’t the only product that works like this; double glazing is another, some classic car dealers list their stock as ‘Price on application’ then attempt to judge the size of the customer’s wallet over the phone, and, of course, there’s estate agents (you knew that was where I was heading, I expect). At estate agency school they teach you how to handle what they call a ‘fee enquiry’. The knack is, they say, to convert the enquiry to a valuation visit without actually quoting a fee. Like kitchens, there are certain differences between what different estate agents do so the idea of booking a valuation is so the agent can present their services to the customer so they can decide if they like what you do for your proposed fee, as well as the fee itself. Fair enough to a point, but the whole thing can still feel a bit murky and uncomfortable to some people. People like me.

When we first opened Cooke Curtis & Co we talked about publishing our standard selling fees. Why not? Surely there were people out there like me that would appreciate the transparency. The fear is always that if our competitors know what we charge they’ll automatically just undercut us a bit. But so what? Volkswagen’s published prices are higher than Dacia’s and it doesn’t stop people buying Volkswagens. If people can see extra value in something they don’t mind paying a fair price for it, so why don’t estate agents just state our fees explicitly? We’re not a kitchen shop, we don’t do questionable 60% off sales, we charge a fair fee. One we can make a living from without overcharging people’s mums because we can get away with it. A bit more than some agents and a bit less than others. Despite all this logic though, we still don’t actually do it. Nowhere on our website will you find our sales fee quoted. We feel hamstrung by the convention, I suppose.

When I started typing this piece it was going to end with me telling you what we usually charge. As I approach that sentence now I still have an odd reluctance to do so, but here goes:

My name is Sam and my usual sole agency fee is 1% of the sale price of your house plus VAT.

There, I said it. Pow! Take that industry conventions. I’m a renegade. A disruptor. The Ikea of estate agency but without the yellow polo shirts. Though it seems I still can’t bring myself to stop using little qualifiers like ‘standard’ and ‘usual’.

Sam Cooke

It’s not as good as doing it properly

We’ve not had significant numbers of new builds in and near Cambridge for decades, so part exchange has been a rare option, then when the thousands of new Trumpington properties first came they were all selling so well that builders had no need to offer such incentives.

 

But times are changing, interest rates have risen and buy-to-let has been made less appealing for small landlords with tax changes. Most critically the number of new builds has rocketed and so buyers have more choice and builders are increasingly turning to part exchange to boost sales.

 

Just like with a car, PXing your house is appealingly simple. It takes away the uncertainties of having a chain and means you just sign a piece of paper and turn up for the keys when the new house is finished. This, of course, doesn’t come for free. It costs builders thousands in stamp duty and estate agent fees and just as importantly they are taking a risk in doing PX as your house may not sell quickly or for what they think it will. Ideally they’d build in a margin of tens of thousands to cover all that but, just like cars, they know that most owners won’t take that low an offer. This means they build all the costs into the profit margin on the new build. What you’ll never know when you PX is what sort of discount you might have got if you didn’t. If you walk through their door ready to go you’re loads more appealing than someone with a PX so that tens-of-thousands risk the builders take with them could easily come as a discount on the price for you. Maybe even more. But do you care? So long as you’re happy with what you get for your house and what you’re paying for the new one, part exchange can make life much easier and that’s worth something.

 

PX is quite an extreme move for builders and they usually only offer it as a last resort. What they often offer instead is something they appealingly call an ‘Assisted Move’. With this the builder doesn’t buy your house but they agree to reserve the new build for you if they can take charge of your sale. This has two benefits to you – they pay the estate agency fees and because the new build is reserved to you there is no risk of losing it. It has big benefits for the builder over PX – they don’t have to pay the stamp duty and other costs of buying your house and they don’t have the risk of losing money on the resale price. It seems like a good compromise. But our experience is that it’s the absolute worst of both worlds.

 

I’ll elaborate.

 

National house builders don’t understand local second-hand markets. They don’t have the time to look in detail at each PX property so they appoint a national intermediary to do it for them. But these intermediaries aren’t able to understand the intricacies of local markets any better than builders. They often charge estate agents a fee, meaning they just appoint those prepared to pay for business rather than making a judgment on who would be best placed to sell a property. Worse still, they often instruct three agents at once, which is the kiss of death in Cambridge. Nothing looks worse than a property that’s so difficult to sell that it needs 3 agents. The theory is that these intermediaries take away some of the work from a seller, but in reality what they take away is all of the control.

 

When we work with our clients it’s a collaborative effort. We agree the best photos, agree the marketing campaign, agree when and how to do the viewings. We take great care to optimise everything. We analyse buyers to decide if they’re any good, analyse their offer to see if we think we can do better by waiting. We don’t rush to take the first offer just to get the file off our desk. We discuss everything with the owner to do the best possible job.

 

Intermediaries generally don’t discuss, they dictate. The price, the launch date, which agents they use. It’s their way or the highway. We’ve even had them cancel promising viewings to accept an offer lower than the asking price. No amount of frustrated discussion would convince them to wait one more day. They didn’t care about getting another £10,000 they just wanted it done.

 

My advice therefore is that when a builder is trying to convince you to sign on the dotted line you either go for a full part exchange, knowing you probably aren’t getting a great deal but accepting that it’s worth it for the ease. Or that you go away, sell your house properly and then make them an offer. I am certain that assisted moves usually end up costing the house seller more money than they save in estate agency fees. By a long way.

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